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Perhaps more than Parks and Recreation, which Daniels co-created, and more than the American version of The Office, which Daniels developed and oversaw, Upload is his baby, based on an idea he conceived as a writer for Saturday Night Live in the late 1980s.

A sci-fi dramatic comedy set in 2033, in which the souls of the dying are uploaded to a virtual afterlife, Upload is also Daniels’ first major creation since Parks ended in 2015.

As much as anyone in television, Daniels is responsible for a successful brand of TV comedy that feels as familiar now as it felt groundbreaking when The Office debuted 15 years ago. His half-hour, single-camera sitcoms, with their deep ensemble casts and tonal blend of cringey awkwardness and heart, offered viewers the easy reliability of the best multicamera comedies but without the one-liners and studio audiences.

Upload, however, is new territory for Daniels. Gone is the hand-held, mockumentary aesthetic he is best known for. He is taking a more cinematic approach to Upload, which Amazon encouraged him to write as a single contained story. It is his first creation for a streaming service (his second, the astro-political satire Space Force, is on Netflix). The plot – told over 10 mostly half-hour episodes – is tight and binge-ready. The special effects are complex.

It also has action. And a murder mystery. And cursing and nudity. And competition.

“There are so many good shows,” and attention is strained, he says, so he packed as many of the things he likes into Upload as possible.

People love the characters Daniels creates and writes — as in, actually love. The way viewers talk about Michael Scott and Leslie Knope, they might as well be real people. Pam and Jim could be a real couple. Put Ron Swanson on an election ballot and he’d probably do OK.

Nathan (Robbie Amell) finds that he can continue to live after his death but not on his own terms.

Nathan (Robbie Amell) finds that he can continue to live after his death but not on his own terms. Credit:Amazon Prime Video

Along the way, the list of actors his series have turned into stars is impressive. Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, John Krasinski, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt: all were relative newcomers before appearing in Daniels’ sitcoms. Fans of The Daily Show knew Steve Carell as a correspondent but it was his role on The Office that catapulted his career.

Upload has a sharper edge than Daniels’ earlier shows (including the animated King of the Hill, which he created with Mike Judge) but the cast has familiar qualities: charismatic, diverse, good-looking but approachable and led by actors who have the glow of indwelling stardom but aren’t widely known.

“I think what’s really exciting from a casting standpoint is to find somebody and see how you’re going to break them,” Daniels says. “And I think there’s a pleasure for the audience in going into a show and being like, ‘I don’t know any of these people.'”

A scene in Upload.

A scene in Upload. Credit:Amazon Prime Video

One of them is Andy Allo, who plays Nora, a customer service representative at Horizen, a company that manages the virtual afterlife and its digitised human souls, known as uploads. (The reps function as the angels of this digital heaven.)

In the series, Nora’s father, a religious man, is dying, and he hopes to join Nora’s deceased mother in the celestial afterlife, not some digital one.

“It does bring in so many questions of your existence after death,” Allo says between takes. “Heaven, on this spiritual level, is what my dad believes in but I work for this company that has created heaven.”

Like today’s wireless companies (note the name), Horizen offers different data plans based on what families can afford. If customers exceed their limits, things get glitchy.

Parks and Recreation creator Greg Daniels on the set of Upload.

Parks and Recreation creator Greg Daniels on the set of Upload.Credit:Amazon Prime

“How darkly funny it is that you end up almost in a similar way and place that you were in real life?” Allo asks. “It’s like pay-by-month” on the bottom tier, she adds — heaven when you can afford it. “You get two gigs a month and once you run out you freeze.”

Although Nora has dozens of other clients, she grows close with Nathan (Robbie Amell), a handsome young upload who took his charmed life for granted before he was critically injured in a self-driving car crash. Ambiguity surrounds the circumstances of his eventual death, drawing Nora and Nathan deep into a dangerous mystery.

Meanwhile, Nathan is even more beholden to his rich and controlling girlfriend (Allegra Edwards) than he was before he died because her family is financing his digital existence.

“Being uploaded and essentially being owned as a human being, or as intellectual property, by my girlfriend throws a huge wrench in my life,” Amell says. “So although I get to continue living, it’s definitely not on my own terms.”

To create the show’s complex mesh of realities, Daniels relies on multiple directors with prestigious, wide-ranging résumés. (Reid won an Emmy nomination for The Handmaid’s Tale; Jeffrey Blitz directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound.)

TV has become highly interested in post-mortem journeys of self-discovery, in shows such as Amazon’s Forever, TBS’ Miracle Workers and Netflix’s Russian Doll. Daniels is aware of the microtrend but doesn’t consider Upload to be following an increasingly well-trod metaphysical path.

Ask about Black Mirror and he is quick to tell you he devised and sold the idea for Upload well before the debut of San Junipero — an episode that won two Emmys in 2017 for its story set in a digital hereafter.

Ask about The Good Place, however, and he is thoughtful to the point of appearing vulnerable. The Good Place wasn’t TV’s only comedy about the afterlife, as he notes. But it was the only one put out by his Parks and Recreation co-creator, Michael Schur.

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“I couldn’t believe that Mike had the idea for The Good Place while I was doing this,” Daniels says. “I don’t watch The Good Place because of the similarities. I don’t want to watch it.”

Given the creators’ shared history, comparisons between the shows will be inevitable. Each is a high-concept comedy set in an afterworld with design flaws and equally flawed but charming staff. But Upload has a detailed and believable universe all its own.

Perhaps its greatest distinguishing feature is the focus on technology and class. The tone is sometimes dark, not just darkly funny, and even frightening.

Daniels says he wanted realism, a version of the near-future that was convincing and recognisable. A Tinder-like app lets people rate their hookups. Unemployment might keep you out of heaven.

“For the pitch, I was referencing Kafka and Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times,” he says. “That’s, to me, why to do it, because it feels like it says something about income inequality and capitalism.”

Traditional notions of heaven are about “both living past your body’s death but also, supposedly, some sort of fairness or ultimate reward for the good and the meek,” he adds. “In this version, that’s not happening — it’s just the rich and capitalistic getting it.”

Upload is on Amazon Prime Video.

The New York Times

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